September 10, 2009


The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum. By Rebecca Loncraine. Gotham Books. $28.

     The great European creator of fairy tales in the 19th century, Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), had a counterpart in the United States not much later: Lyman Frank Baum (1856-1919). Andersen’s stories were mostly short, building on centuries-old models of Grimm and Perrault fairy tales so effectively that even today, many people believe “The Little Mermaid,” “The Little Match Girl,” “The Ugly Duckling” and others must be part of an old oral tradition rather than the products of one man’s literary mind. Baum’s tales, perhaps influenced by the expansiveness of the nation in which he was writing, are on a grander scale, delivered in particular in 14 Oz novels suffused with geography, a sprinkling of politics, and attempts to lend some depth to characters beyond what was customary in children’s literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

     There is no shortage of biography of Baum, and Rebecca Loncraine’s strictly chronological book is a worthy addition to the field. Loncraine is a British journalist and creative-writing teacher, viewing Baum from a literary angle and in the context of fairy-tale creation in general. Thus, in writing about the illustrated Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz – a Sunday newspaper feature intended to promote Baum’s second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) – Loncraine says not only that “the motivation for the series was primarily marketing” but also that “the disoriented, mischievous Ozites would…tell fairy tales (here were stories within stories within stories).” Loncraine’s across-the-pond perspective sometimes leads her to over-interpretation, as when she discusses the two infamous December 1890 editorials in which Baum railed against Native Americans – writing for which two of Baum’s descendants apologized to the Sioux in 2006: “His thoughtless comments were incoherent, full of the pain and frustration of his own life out on the prairie, which surfaced in his writing as irrational emotions fueled by fear and guilt, twisted into terrible anger.” Here, Loncraine doth protest too much, especially when she goes on to lump these long-discredited writings with other elements of Baum’s life as the basis for his move into fantasy: “Baum’s rage against the established church, his badly expressed fury at the terrible history of U.S.-Native American relations, his frustration with the drought, and the failures of his political projects, forced him to look outside his immediate reality, to escape it by plunging into the unseen world of the spirits and imaginary futures.”

     Loncraine is on firmer ground when discussing the Oz books themselves – although her chronological approach means she is two-thirds of the way through her biography before she gets beyond the first and most famous, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). Loncraine is quite insistent on the relationship between Baum’s exterior life and the interior one from which he brought forth his Oz novels and a very large number of other works: “From 1903 to 1910, Baum lived between landscapes. …[H]e conjured tales in luxury hotel suites and first-class carriages, dressed in tailor-made suits, chewing on the best cigars… [But] if Baum’s life now looked on the surface like a graceful swan gliding on the clear waters of wealth and success, he was in reality working frantically to make it appear so, like the swan’s rough, scaly legs that pedal beneath its gleaming body to keep it afloat.” (One would expect a creative-writing teacher to have more literary style than Loncraine does in that last sentence.)

     Loncraine makes some intriguing points about Baum as a writer: “Girl children were always Baum’s favorite rulers, allowing him to make a carnivalesque world in reverse, where little girls are in power.” But, surprisingly for someone focused on her subject’s real-world life, she does not always connect these insights immediately to Baum’s personal beliefs and activities: he was an ardent proponent of women’s suffrage. Still, she does a fine job making other connections, including one with Andersen: “Baum thought of himself as an expert in fairy tales, old and new. …Hans Christian Andersen, ‘the glorious Dane,’ as Baum called him, had been the first author, as far as he knew, to originate new folktales. Andersen’s tales were an intimate melding of oldest Danish folk stories and new inventions of his own, and this was the model of the modern writer of fairy stories for Baum. …Baum took himself seriously even if some parts of the press didn’t.”

     Loncraine certainly takes Baum seriously – perhaps a little too much so. There is not much sense of joy that comes through in this biography – neither Baum’s own happiness nor the enjoyment he has brought to so many readers. And there are some curious missteps. John R. Neill, who illustrated all of Baum’s Oz books except the first, is mentioned only four times, although it was Neill’s illustrations that helped show the Oz books to go beyond the narrow confines of “children’s literature” (not always to Baum’s approbation). W.W. Denslow, who illustrated the first Oz book (1900) but had a complete falling-out with Baum by 1904, is treated at considerably more length.

     It turns out that The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum is a very accurate title for Loncraine’s book, which focuses to a far greater extent on the author than on his works. There is a perpetual argument about the extent to which creative artists’ productions reflect their everyday lives; this book will appeal most strongly to readers who believe in a close relationship between the real and imaginary worlds: “Closing off the land of Oz in order to protect it from the outside world mirrored what Baum was trying to do in his own life,” Loncraine writes at one point. Yet even if reality and fantasy entwine closely in Baum’s life and work – a proposition that Loncraine does not really prove – it is certain that Baum’s books, especially those set in Oz, offer readers more joy and temporary escapism than this biographer fully acknowledges.

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